Meet the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2021: Charles Woodson leads off class

ByJeff Legwold ESPN logo
Sunday, February 7, 2021

For the ninth consecutive year, a first-time-eligible player is among the newest enshrinees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Former Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers defensive back Charles Woodson and former Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson were selected in their first year of eligibility.

The last time the Hall of Fame had a class that did not have a first-time-eligible player was in 2012. Former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was picked in his first year of eligibility last year.

This year's class was chosen by the Hall's board of selectors on Jan. 19 during a virtual meeting. The class will be enshrined during a multiday event Aug. 5-9 in Canton, Ohio. The extended enshrinement weekend will also include ceremonies for the Hall's Class of 2020 as well as the Centennial Class of Hall of Famers selected as part of the league's 100th anniversary -- those were canceled last year due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The Hall's Class of 2020 has Steve Atwater, Isaac Bruce, Steve Hutchinson, Edgerrin James and Polamalu.

The Centennial class: Harold Carmichael, Jim Covert, Bill Cowher, Bobby Dillon, Cliff Harris, Winston Hill, Jimmy Johnson, Alex Karras, Steve Sabol, Donnie Shell, Duke Slater, Mac Speedie, Ed Sprinkle, Paul Tagliabue and George Young.

Here's a look at the 2021 class, which will be rolled out during the NFL Honors show Saturday evening:

Modern era

Calvin Johnson, wide receiver

Detroit Lions, 2007-15

At 6-foot-5, 237 pounds with 4.3 speed, Johnson changed the way some looked at the position. A six-time Pro Bowl selection, Johnson led the league in receiving yards twice, and in 2012 he came within 36 yards of becoming the first receiver in NFL history to finish with 2,000 yards in a season.

Why he was selected: Johnson dominated no matter who threw him the ball. He had six different starting quarterbacks in his nine-year career and caught a touchdown pass from seven different quarterbacks. During his career none of his teammates on offense were named to an AP All-Pro team. And during the nine years he played, he led the NFL in receiving yards (11,619), receiving TDs (83), receiving yards per game (86.1), 100-yard games (46), 200-yard games (five) and games with multiple receiving TDs (17).

Signature moment: Johnson's teams played in two playoff games in his career, and in his postseason debut he caught 12 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns, but the Lions lost to the New Orleans Saints in a wild-card game. In 2013, he had 14 catches for 329 yards and a touchdown in a regular-season win over the Cowboys, one of three career games with at least 225 yards receiving.

They said it: "He is, in my opinion, the LeBron James football. ... He's definitely a one-of-a-kind receiver.'' -- former NFL cornerback Aqib Talib

Charles Woodson, cornerback/safety

Oakland Raiders, 1998-2005, 2013-15; Green Bay Packers, 2006-12

It's fitting that Manning and Woodson, who were both Heisman Trophy finalists in 1997, will stand next to each other on the stage in Canton for the enshrinement ceremonies. Woodson was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and was both the Defensive Rookie of the Year (1998) and Defensive Player of the Year (2009) in his career.

Why he was elected: A multifaceted playmaker who was the first player in NFL history to have at least 50 interceptions and 20 sacks, his 65 career interceptions are tied for fifth all time. He led the league in interceptions with nine in 2009 at age 33 and tied for the league lead in 2011 with seven at age 35.

Signature moment: Woodson'simpeccable timing was on display after President Barack Obama, the highest-profile Bears fan, said during the 2010 season he would not attend Super Bowl XLV unless the Bears defeated the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Woodson said: "Guess what, we'll go see him.'' And the Packers did, as Super Bowl champs, in the months that followed their win over the Steelers in the title game.

He said it:"An incredible career, man. It goes beyond words. I never intended on playing as long as I have, but this is the way it's happened, and I'm grateful for it.'' -- Woodson before his final game in 2015


Tom Flores

Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders 1979-87; Seattle Seahawks 1992-94

As a player, assistant coach and head coach in pro football, Flores has four Super Bowl rings and one AFL championship to his credit. Flores and Hall of Famer Mike Ditka are the only people in NFL history who have been Super Bowl winners as players, assistant coaches and head coaches. His gold jacket comes for his work as a head coach.

Why he was selected: Flores' last three seasons as a head coach -- when he returned to coaching in Seattle after being team president there under the restrictions of the dysfunctional ownership of Ken Behring -- were a decidedly bumpy ride. But his time with the Raiders included two Super Bowl wins and an 8-3 postseason record for a .727 winning percentage that ranks behind only Vince Lombardi.

Signature moment: After an offseason when Raiders owner Al Davis traded Ken Stabler, Dave Casper and Jack Tatum to Houston for quarterback Dan Pastorini, Pastorini then fractured his leg in Week 5. Jim Plunkett entered the lineup, and the Raiders went on to become the first wild-card team to win a Super Bowl -- they beat the Oilers along the way -- and Flores became the first Hispanic head coach to win a Super Bowl.

They said it: "He was a pioneer in pro football, and we saw him as a role model.'' -- Washington coach Ron Rivera


Drew Pearson, wide receiver

Dallas Cowboys, 1973-83

Pearson was the only first-team selection to the All-Decade team of the 1970s who had not been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Like many senior finalists, his career had to be looked at in the context of his era, given that his 58 catches in 1976 and 870 yards in 1977 led the league. A three-time All-Pro, he averaged at least 17 yards a catch in five seasons, including four of his first five years in the league.

Why he was elected:Pearson, a former college quarterback who made the Cowboys' roster as an undrafted rookie wide receiver, had 489 career catches, which wouldn't raise an eyebrow in today's game. But he was one of the elite receivers of his era, and his total is more than those of Hall of Famers Paul Warfield, Lynn Swann and Bob Hayes. His career was shortened by a liver injury he suffered in a car accident at age 33, an accident that killed his brother Carey. He retired shortly thereafter.

Signature moment: Pearson caught the original Hail Mary pass -- from Hall of Famer Roger Staubach -- to lead the Cowboys to a 1975 divisional playoff win over the Minnesota Vikings in the last 24 seconds of the game. The play got its name after Staubach said, "I threw the ball as far as I could, I closed my eyes and I said a Hail Mary.''

They said it: "He has been overlooked [by the Hall] for too long.'' -- Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach